Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Investigating about explorers: a range of resources (ages 8-12)

Do you have fond memories of reading your history textbooks? Probably not. So how can we make history more interesting for our children?

We want our children to envision what it would have been like to live long ago, to make the messy decisions that people had to make, to struggle and wrestle with life, warts and all. And yet we also need to convey basic information about historical periods and figures. How do we balance the facts with the engaging material?

As a case in point, I've been helping 5th grade students gather information about famous explorers from different eras. They're investigating Marco Polo, James Cook, Hernando Cortes, Amelia Earhart, Sally Ride and many others. Their teachers want them to practice note-taking skills. What resources will help them the most?

World Book Encyclopedia: building background knowledge
"How are we supposed to choose which explorer to do our report on if we don't know anything about them?"
Students need to begin their research process by learning some basic facts about their subject. This should be pretty easy for the children to read, since they need to focus on building a clear framework in their minds. I would suggest just reading at this point, not taking notes. We start with World Book Kids, the junior version of the World Book Encyclopedia.

Web Path Express: guided Internet research
"I call this Google for 5th graders."
We have recently added WebPath Express to our Follett Destiny library catalog. This service guides students in their Internet searches, helping them go directly to accurate, age-appropriate sites. Students are able to find reliable resources quickly, without having to filter out commercial or college-level sites.
by Chris Oxlade
Kingfisher Readers, level 5
Kingfisher, 2014
Your local library
ages 8-10
Students will like the clear sentences and frequent illustrations in this brief introduction to nearly twenty explorers from ancient to modern times. Each explorer's major achievements and struggles are covered in a two-page spread, so the pace moves quickly. Sentences are relatively short, and drawings keep interest high.
"Marco Polo was born in Venice, in Italy. In 1271, when he was just 17 years old, he set off for China with his father and his uncle. They took gifts for Kublai Khan, the powerful ruler of China in the 1200s CE."
This type of book will help students develop a "research report" tone to their own writing. It is factual and straight forward. But it does not have much depth, it does not really prompt students to connect to what they're reading or to ask questions.
Lives of the Explorers:
Discoveries, Disasters (and What the Neighbors Thought)
by Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
Google Books preview
Your local library
ages 8-12
Krull engages readers with dynamic writing, as she introduces them to the lives of twenty ancient and modern explorers. While this is more difficult to read, it is also much more interesting. She begins the chapter on Mathew Henson, African American explorer of the North Pole in the early 1900s, this way:
"Matthew Henson and Robert Peary shared many an unappetizing meal in the frozen land around the North Pole. But in the United States they wouldn't have even been allowed to eat together, as restaurants were segregated into 'black' and 'white' sections."
In just three pages, Krull helps readers get a sense of the challenges Henson faced and his remarkable achievements. She incorporates quotes from Henson to give a sense of his perspective. Teachers and librarians should note, however, that she does not indicate the sources for her material, but just provides sources for further reading.
Into the Unknown
How Great Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea and Air
by Stewart Ross
illustrated by Stephen Biesty
Candlewick, 2011
Your local library
ages 9-14
*my full review here*
Stewart Ross and Stephen Biesty absolutely captivate me each time I read a section of Into the Unknown. Biesty's intricate illustrations draw me right into each scene, helping me imagine what it would be like to be part of an expedition. Students love the fold-out illustrations and the cut-aways that show you the inside of ships. Ross's descriptions include enough detail to engross me without overwhelming me. They have a strong narrative flow, conveying the dramatic pull of these stories but also helping young readers start forming their own questions and conclusions.

The review copy of Explorers came from our public library. The review copy of Lives of the Explorers was kindly sent by the publishers, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The review copy of Into the Unknown was kindly sent by the publishers, Candlewick. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2014 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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